Crucial context and facts missing in media’s reporting on shelling of UN schools in Gaza

Crucial context and facts missing in media’s reporting on shelling of UN schools in Gaza

Gabrielle Debinski


“US ‘appalled’ by ‘disgraceful’ Israeli shelling of UN school,” “UN Chief calls attack ‘moral outrage’ and ‘criminal act’” as well as “Another UN school hit in Israeli bombing in Gaza” are just some of the hyperbolic headlines that have been attached to reports on Israel’s ‘supposed’ shelling of a UN school in Rafah, southern Gaza, on August 3.

The international media has been abuzz with this story of an apparent Israeli shelling of the UN school, which was reportedly being used to shelter 3,000 displaced Palestinians in Gaza.

Moreover, this story has been constantly linked to two other recent cases in which Israel was accused of hitting UN schools in Gaza, resulting in deaths. What is largely missing from the media’s coverage of these three separate yet ‘seemingly’ interconnected events, however, is crucial context and fact.

For the sake of clarity, these bombings will be addressed in this blog post backwards, starting with the most recent incident, which occurred on August 3.

Most of the media asserted that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) targeted and hit a UN school in Rafah, resulting in around ten deaths. Yet, only a few publications, such as the Wall Street Journal provided the real facts, namely, that the IAF had in fact targeted three Islamic Jihad militants travelling on a motorbike outside the UN facility.

Moreover, as the Guardian report makes clear, the missile landed some 8 to 10 metres outside the school gates, but sadly, a large body of people were standing around the area of the gate and were struck by shrapnel:

At the time of the strike – about 10.50am local time – dozens of children and adults were clustered around the gates buying biscuits and sweets from stalls set up by locals.

The missile struck the ground eight to 10 metres from the open gates. Witnesses at the scene less than an hour after the explosion claimed it had been fired from one of the many unmanned Israeli drones in the air above Rafah.

Some publications chose to lead with a deliberately misleading headline condemning Israel’s ‘attack,’ on a “school” while noting somewhere in the body of the article that Israel had in fact targeted Islamic Jihad militants travelling on a motorbike well outside the school grounds, while others chose to omit this principle fact all together.

As news of the supposed Israeli attack on the school broke, the US State Department promptly joined the tune of characterising the incident as an attack on a UN school, when in fact the only connection between the pin-pointed attack and the school was that the three Islamic Jihad militants were travelling in a street in Rafah outside the school.

In a scathing press release, the US State Department issued the following condemnation:

“The United States is appalled by today’s disgraceful shelling outside an UNRWA school in Rafah sheltering some 3,000 displaced persons, in which at least ten more Palestinian civilians were tragically killed. The coordinates of the school, like all UN facilities in Gaza, have been repeatedly communicated to the Israeli Defense Forces.
“We once again stress that Israel must do more to meet its own standards and avoid civilian casualties. UN facilities, especially those sheltering civilians, must be protected, and must not be used as bases from which to launch attacks. The suspicion that militants are operating nearby does not justify strikes that put at risk the lives of so many innocent civilians. We call for a full and prompt investigation of this incident as well as the recent shelling of other UNRWA schools.
We continue to underscore that all parties must take all feasible precautions to prevent civilian casualties and protect the civilian population and comply with international humanitarian law.”

Meanwhile, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, said that “the attack is yet another gross violation of international humanitarian law,” labelling it a “criminal act.” 

Ironically, the US State Department issued this scathing condemnation before noting that it will wait to see a report on what had occurred. But neither the US nor the UN waited for a statement from the IDF before issuing harsh criticism.

According to the WSJ, IDF Spokesperson, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, made it clear that “Israeli forces fired a missile at three fighters on a motorcycle in front of the school, where about 3,000 people displaced by the fighting had crowded into classrooms.”

The facts of this case  paint an extremely different picture to that evoked by the mass media and espoused by the US State Department and the UN of an Israeli attack on a UN school. There was no attack on a school – this appears to have been an attack near a UN school which successfully avoided damaging that school itself or harming anyone inside it but sadly killed some innocent people near the school gate.

The second reported case of an Israeli attack on a school in Gaza occurred on July 30. It was reported that a UN school in the Jabaliya refugee camp was hit during the night, resulting in 15 deaths.

The UN hastily issued a condemnation of Israel (before the IDF could issue its own statement) with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, calling the attack “outrageous and unjustifiable” and demanding “accountability and justice.”

However, the Israeli military soon issued a statement saying that mortar bombs were being launched from “from the vicinity” of the UN facility and it was defensively firing back.

Meanwhile, on July 24, Israel was widely condemned when a rocket hit a UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) school in Beit Hanoun, Gaza. While the media was abuzz with strong condemnation of Israel, little was said of the Beit Hanoun area, which has been a hot bed for terrorist activity.

UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness was quick to lambast Israel telling Israel Radio that UNRWA tried to coordinate with the IDF during the day to provide an opportunity for civilians to leave the school, but that request “never was granted.”

He also tweeted, “Precise co-ordinates of the UNRWA shelter in Beit Hanoun had been formally given to the Israeli army.”

However, Israel says it specifically asked for the school to be evacuated and made arrangements for this to occur but Hamas did not allow it to occur. According to an IDF statement from July 24:

The UNRWA claims that Israel prevented the safe evacuation of the school in Beit Hanoun are unfounded. It should be emphasized that during recent days, COGAT [ The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories] has been maintaining close contact with representatives of the UNRWA, the ICRC, and Palestinians in Beit Hanoun. COGAT made every possible effort to ensure the safety of local residents by evacuating them from the area, which has been marked by intense fighting and Hamas rocket launching towards Israel, including from the vicinity of such facilities. It should be further emphasized that following this contact, the humanitarian window was authorized.

Moreover, Israel alleges that, based on aerial video footage, while one Israeli mortar did hit the school grounds by mistake as part of a response to an anti-tank missile fired from adjacent to the school, this did no damage and harmed no one at the school.  All damage to the school and all injuries and deaths, they alleged, was actually the result of a misfired Hamas rocket which struck the school. This account which was also then confirmed as plausible by UNRWA, according to reports:

 “UNRWA also acknowledged on Thursday that Hamas fired into the Beit Hanoun area, where the agency’s school was hit, according to Israel’s Channel 2 News.

Yet news agencies have continued to routinely blame Israel for the shelling of the Beit Hanoun UN facility and for the deaths there.

So here is the apparent reality about the three UN schools that Israel supposedly hit, to widespread condemnation. One was probably struck by a misfired rocket fired by a Palestinian terror group, the second was hit by Israel fire, but this was in direct response to fire coming from directly inside or next to the school. And the third was simply never struck directly at all – a strike on a legitimate target in a street near the school did not harm the school but accidentally killed some people sheltering in the school when they were outside of it in the street.

While it is possible to criticize Israel for being insufficiently careful around these UN shelters, the widespread allegation in the media that Israel is “targeting” UN schools is simply not sustainable in the face of these facts.